Valentine's Day is Saturday, but one person who doesn't get mushy about it is food writer Nigella Lawson. Asked for some sweet recipes, she was happy to oblige. First, she felt a need to be clear: This is not her favorite holiday.
It all started with Lawson's teenage days in boarding school. As she remembers it, "The competitiveness about Valentine's Day — and who has the most cards and so forth — means that the tension and stress never quite leave you."
So the young Nigella developed a "lofty detachment" from the holiday.
"However, it's only slightly serious," she told NPR's Renee Montagne. "Because if it's an excuse to cook something delicious, I'll take it gladly."
For instance, Lawson has embraced cupcakes — or as she calls them around Valentine's Day, love buns.
"I just had to call them love buns," she said. "For me, part of writing recipes is the joy of giving titles."
Lawson's love buns are "simply cupcakes with a sort of easy-whip meringue topping."
The topping is fairly simple: egg whites, sugar and corn syrup, along with a touch of salt and cream of tartar to help it maintain its shape.
After that is swirled atop the cupcakes, Lawson adds a gimmick: "these rather fantastic little heart-shaped sprinkles, which I let fall flutteringly onto the cloudy peaks. They almost look like prop cakes, they're so perfect."
And that perfection doesn't have to be stressful, she said.
Valentine's Day recipes "can get so fussy and fernickity," Lawson said, "that actually you do not feel loving toward your loved ones – you just feel vaguely hostile, that you've been doing something so complicated and challenging."
The assembly is easy, as all the ingredients are stirred together in a saucepan before being poured into a cupcake tin. And the recipe can use cherry jam or, even better, candied cherries.
"If you can get those candied cherries, that haven't been dyed rather an alarming bright red, and you can get the ones that are a natural dark red, you've got something rather sultry and enchanting, rather than cute."
And with a topping of heavy cream and bittersweet chocolate, the cupcakes can let anyone join in the recent surge in cupcakes' popularity.
"I think that adults have some sort of yearning for childish things, childish foods," Lawson said. "And I don't mean that disparagingly."
The little cakes, which can seem like they were made especially for one person, satisfy that desire, she said.
Lawson notes that cupcakes also have another advantage — they don't inspire quite as much fretting after you've gone and eaten an entire cake.
Reprinted from How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. This recipe has not been tested by NPR.
Makes 12 cupcakes
12-cup muffin pan and paper baking cups
1/2 cup soft unsalted butter
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces
1 1/3 cups morello cherry jam
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup self-rising cake flour
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
12 natural-colored glace cherries
These are very easy, very good — somehow light and dense at the same time — and I love their dark, glossy elegance. When I made them for the cake sale at my daughter's school fair, they sold, even at more than a dollar a piece, quicker than anything else.
The jam I use for these is a morello cherry preserve; if you're using a less elegant and probably sweeter confection, reduce the sugar in the cakes a little. And if you have any Kirsch about the place, then add a splash to the batter and icing.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Put the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan on the heat to melt. When nearly completely melted, stir in the chocolate. Leave for a moment to begin softening, then take the pan off the heat and stir with a wooden spoon until the butter and chocolate are smooth and melted. Now add the cherry jam, sugar, salt, and eggs. Stir with a wooden spoon and when all is pretty well amalgamated, stir in the flour.
Scrape and pour into the muffin baking cups in their pan and bake for 25 minutes. Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes before turning out.
When the cupcakes are cool, break the chocolate for the icing into little pieces and add them to the cream in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, and then whisk — by hand or electrically — till thick and smooth. Ice the cupcakes, smoothing the tops with the back of a spoon, and stand a cherry in the center of each.
These were the first cakes I ever made as a child — little cupcakes with a disc gouged out of their pointy tops, cut in two, and the two pieces of cake top set in a blob of buttercream like a pair of butterfly wings.
I wasn't much good at making them look like butterflies then, and I see I haven't improved any. The ones here are more bunny buns than butterfly cakes, but they still make me feel strangely comforted. I say "strangely," as there is nothing comforting about the state of childhood. But then, the false solace gained from lying to yourself about the past is probably a necessary evil.
But what am I talking about? Just make the cakes. They're very easy. I whip cream with food coloring rather than making buttercream, and take great comfort in their pretty pastelness.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners.
Cream the butter and sugar either in a bowl by hand or with an electric mixer.
Once light and fluffy, add the eggs one at a time with a little of the flour, beating as you go.
Fold in the rest of the flour, the baking powder and baking soda, and the vanilla, and finally the milk.
Spoon the batter into the paper liners, dividing equally.
Put in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the cupcakes are cooked and golden on top. Take the cupcakes in their paper liners out of the pan and let cool on a wire rack.
Once they're cool, cut off the mounded peak (if your cakes have obliged), cutting it in half to make the butterfly wings. Dig down a little with your knife. This will also leave a small hole to put the cream to hold the wings. If your cakes haven't peaked much, you will just have to cut out a slightly wider circle after the top, digging in as you do so.
Whip the cream until thick, coloring with food coloring if you wish, and dollop about 2 teaspoonfuls of cream on top of each cake.
Stick on your butterfly wings, using the cream as the glue.
Reprinted from Feast: Food to Celebrate Life. This recipe has not been tested by NPR.
Makes 12 buns.
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon soft butter
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon superfine sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons real vanilla extract
2-3 tablespoons milk
2 egg whites
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup superfine sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Heart-shaped sprinkles to decorate
In another time I'd have been satisfied calling these Valentine's Day buns but, as the saying goes, if you're going to get wet, you may as well go swimming.
Take everything you need out of the fridge in time to bring to room temperature — this makes a huge difference to the lightness of the love buns later — and preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Put all of the ingredients for the buns, except for the milk, into a food processor and blitz until smooth. Pulse while adding the milk down the funnel to make a smooth, dropping consistency.
Divide the mixture into a 12-bun muffin tin lined with muffin papers or heart-patterned cases, and bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes. They should have risen and be golden on top; you want a little peak if possible.
Let them cool a little in their tin on a rack, and then take them carefully out of the tin to cool in their papers, still on the wire rack.
Now for the topping. Here is a slight dilemma, as you'll make more than you need for the 12 buns, but if you halve the quantities, you won't have quite enough. If you're making these for you and your one true love, then I presume you won't need all 12 of them, in which case you could freeze most of the buns to be iced and eaten at some later date, and halve the topping ingredients to decorate the few you want today.
This is a frosting that has a kind of meringue base, by which you whisk egg whites over heat until they're stiff and gleaming. So make a double-boiler with a heatproof bowl that will fit snugly over a saucepan of barely simmering water, and put all of the ingredients for the frosting, except for the vanilla and sprinkles, into the bowl. Whisk everything with an electric beater until the icing becomes thick and holds peaks like a meringue. This will take about 5 minutes, so be patient.
Take the bowl off the saucepan and onto a cool surface and keep whisking while you add the vanilla. Then keep whisking until the mixture cools a little. You want a proper peaked and whipped covering here, so spoon some frosting over each bun and then dollop another spoonful over in a swirly fashion. Immediately shake over your choice of sprinkles, as the icing will set very quickly. Indeed, these look rather like stage prop buns or the fake ones that some bakeries used to keep in their windows, so plasticky and gleaming are they.